Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Anthrax Case Might Be Cracked, But It Is Far From Closed

Bruce Ivins
[Cross-posted at Firedoglake.]

I hope everyone watching the anthrax/Bruce Ivins case has been reading Marcy’s stellar work, particularly her delving of the Justice Department’s selective document dump yesterday (see especially her wrapup on the documents and the timeline she constructed, as well as this morning’s note). The bottom line: "they haven’t solved this crime, but they want us to all go away and pretend they have."

Some of the evidence presented is fairly damning, to be sure. There’s a big red flag in the middle this affidavit: Ivins gave the FBI false anthrax samples during their investigation of the mailings in April 2002. What’s particularly noteworthy is that he appeared to be hiding the fact that his lab samples (which he originally did not hand over) matched the samples in the mailings.

Besides being extraordinarily suspicious behavior (Ivins’ explanations were far from convincing) this sort of non-cooperation is also obstruction of justice. And that, no doubt, was a club the FBI began holding over his head to get his cooperation in the years that followed.

It’s also worth noting that this event happened only days before Ivins was involved in discovering an anthrax leak at the lab, an event that set off a panic within Fort Detrick. (The Frederick News Post published an excellent series describing this event.)

At the same time, you have to be struck by some of the FBI’s behavior that emerges from these papers as well as other documents. The Washington Post story following the dump covers this well: It really was an extraordinary pattern of constant harassment, including showing up at a supermarket with autopsy photos to tell Ivins’ wife that he had killed those people.

I’ve been around federal law enforcement for a long time, and agents almost never engage in tactics like that unless they are dead certain they have their man and are trying to shake him into a misstep. Problem is, I’ve also seen agents be wrong about that.

What stands out in these documents is what we’ve gotten so far from the leaks (almost certainly coming from an investigator) that have fed us most of the public information about the case against Ivins: Namely, there are tons of cause for suspicion, and even a reasonable circumstantial case to make against Ivins, but it’s a dubious proposition at best that this evidence would have yielded a conviction — it’s more likely, in fact, that it wouldn’t have.

Indeed, it’s likely that Ivins would still be alive if their case against him had been stronger. After all, they could easily have taken him into custody after his release from the hospital where he was treated just before his suicide — but probably didn’t because their case was so weak and they feared it would be dismissed outright if they grabbed him.

What the public has to work on so far are affidavits for search warrants — which are fine for establishing probable cause, but don’t do diddly for establishing actual guilt. They may have gotten a good crack on the case, but the FBI is far from having solved it.

Indeed, the affidavit contains several inconsistencies. One of the key pieces of evidence it raises is his mysterious late-night work around the time of the attacks, emphasizing his refusal to explain what he was working on. Yet a later section quotes an e-mail showing showing that Ivins resumed work on a vaccine project at this time. And the “unusual” pattern of night work is clearly shown to have begun in August, well before the Al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. — meaning if Ivins was working on the attacks then, he conceived them before 9/11. And yet whoever was responsible for the attacks was clearly piggybacking off them (see the phony "Muslim" content of the letters).

This incoherency is also evident in the concluding final section, which makes clear that investigators are continuing to look outside of Fort Detrick for the location and the equipment used in making the anthrax and the letters. (It also makes it unlikely that the lyopholizer used in making the anthrax was the one recently linked to Ivins in news reports based on the leaks.)

Even if Ivins can be linked with hard evidence, the case still has many unresolved issues, particularly whether Ivins had any co-conspirators (the affidavits even indicate this was a possibility). And then there are the larger issues about what was happening at Fort Detrick — why security was so lax, and whether the facility was violating the international bioweapons convention if it was making this anthrax.

But it’s clear the Justice Department wants to walk away from this case — and with someone linked closely to Scooter "Germ Boy" Libby calling the shots, that seems increasingly likely. Hopefully, Congress will have something to say about that.

[Thanks to Warbaby for the links and pointers.]

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